Coral Reefs Are Perishing at an Unprecedented Rate—Climate Change Is to Blame, Study Shows

Coral reefs around the globe are rapidly deteriorating due to rising temperatures caused by human-driven climate change at an unprecedented rate, according to a new study. The research, conducted by a team of scientists in the Netherlands and published in December 2020 in the journal Fisheries, reveals startling evidence of how our continued failure to address global warming may cost us these vital ecosystems.

Coral reefs are one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet, providing invaluable services and resources to humans such as protection from coastal flooding and harvesting of sea life like fish. Unfortunately, their natural beauty is swiftly diminishing due to global warming. The new study warns that it’s happening faster than we thought, suggesting temperatures may soon reach a point at which coral reefs can no longer survive.

This Comes as No Surprise to Experts

This study’s stunning revelations are not entirely surprising to some experts in the field — several have long been warning of the dire consequences of climate change on coral reefs. For example, a 2017 article in the journal Global Change Biology predicted that corals in the Caribbean region would be almost wiped out by 2050 if current trends continue.

In addition, a 2018 report conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that more than 60 percent of tropical coral reefs are now threatened by climate change and local impacts, largely due to bleaching events caused by rising water temperatures.

The Study’s Findings Are Grim

The latest research focused on the effects of increased temperatures on the model genus of coral, Acropora, which is found all over the world. They collected data on how rising temperatures were impacting both the reef-building and photosynthetic impacts of the species.

The results were bleak. They found that the reef-building process of Acropora weakened rapidly as temperatures rose over 30°C. This suggests that if we continue to pump out greenhouse gases, global warming will soon reach a point at which coral reefs can no longer survive.

This Isn’t a Problem for the Future, It’s Already Here

Coral bleaching — the loss of many of the colourful organisms — is already being observed as temperatures rise above the historical average. In the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, for example, bleaching events of mass coral mortality have occurred almost every year since 2015.

Climate Change Is the Primary Culprit

When it comes to climate change, there are a number of factors at play. These include accelerated sea level rise, increased ocean acidification, and extreme weather events. But when it comes to the death of coral reefs, the primary culprit is rising water and atmospheric temperatures.

This is because when temperatures get too high, the plants utilised by the corals as their primary food source are killed off. The corals depend on the plants to convert sunlight into energy (through photosynthesis), so if this process is disrupted, the coral can’t survive.

What’s Being Done to Address Climate Change?

There’s no doubt that climate change is an urgent issue that the world needs to address quickly and effectively if we are to protect our coral reefs. As of now, there are a number of initiatives and actions being taken to try and address the problem.

The Paris Agreement

One of the key efforts is the Paris Agreement, a global effort that seeks to limit global warming to below 2°C (above pre-industrial levels) and ideally below 1.5°C. This is a long-term deal between 187 countries who are each required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and come up with targets to achieve net-zero emissions.

Individual Initiatives

In addition to the Paris Agreement, individuals can also contribute to reducing carbon emissions on a daily basis by taking simple steps, such as:

• Reducing the amount of meat and dairy products we consume;

• Switching to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power;

• Taking advantage of energy-efficient appliances and LED light bulbs;

• Supporting community green initiatives and reforestation projects;

• Recycling and buying recycled products;

• Planting a tree.

Climate Change Is Affecting Coral Reefs Worldwide

The new research and existing evidence make it clear that climate change is taking a massive toll on coral reefs around the world. Unless we take drastic action and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we may soon be at a point where they’re beyond saving. This issue requires immediate and far-reaching action, both at an individual and global level, to prevent further damage.